Certified Confusion, continued

This messy label landscape has been called a “tower of ecobabble” and a source of “green fog,” generating a looming sense of disaster among many in the green marketing community. “All it takes is a few big scandals about something not being very green—after it was promoted as green—and consumers will stop trusting,” says Anastasia O’Rourke, co-founder of the research firm Big Room, Inc.

Already, the Federal Trade Commission has charged four textile manufacturers with falsely claiming that their rayon clothing and other textile products are “100 percent bamboo fiber,” with bamboo’s antimicrobial properties. And, this past summer, the agency went after manufacturers of “biodegradable” plates, wipes and dry towels, stating that most of these products end up in landfills where they do not biodegrade.

“This issue has to be resolved before consumers just give up,” says Case. “It could kill a big business opportunity.”

Fortunately, efforts toward a unified authority on what’s green, both for the consumer and industrial marketplaces, are now in progress. Such an über-label would be publicly available and developed in a transparent way.

A frontrunner of these efforts is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Consortium, which has convened an impressive roster of more than a dozen Fortune 500 manufacturers, as well as various environmental groups and universities.

“Wal-Mart’s got the best chance of doing this because they’ve got the market power,” says Tim Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “If they don’t succeed, we’re set back another 10 years. If Wal-Mart doesn’t do it, no one will—the challenge being, can we live with Wal-Mart’s rules?”

Jay Golden, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and co-director of Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Consortium, says the group is working on developing “a common language and a common set of rules” that companies can use for free. The resources will be available via Earthster and other open-source technology platforms to assess the environmental life-cycle impacts of their products. Rather than award labels or certifications, the consortium will let manufacturers share the results of their assessments to both retail customers and consumers as they see fit.

It’s no simple task. The consortium’s data will span hundreds of products, while the group evaluates a profusion of existing labels and certification programs. The goal is to decide which ones can be incorporated into the consortium’s final product and which categories will need new standards.

EcoLogo’s Case predicts that Golden and his team will need to create a lot of new green standards. Despite the growing ranks of green labels, there are still many categories for which no reliable assessments exist. Nobody, for instance, certifies baby products, mattresses or cell phones. Case estimates that existing eco-labels cover only 10 percent of product categories. He says EcoLogo, which certifies everything from paints to cleaning and paper products, is just now developing standards for toys.

Another Herculean challenge facing the Sustainability Consortium is actually convincing manufacturers to adopt new sets of environmental rules and standards. Across the consumer landscape, manufacturers have largely shunned third-party, life-cycle-based labels, embracing only a few single-attribute programs like Energy Star and Fair Trade. Most companies have opted to fashion their own criteria.

“Companies often feel that using a third-party certifier like ourselves borders on regulation, so there’s a lot of hesitation and backlash,” says Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing and outreach at Green Seal. “They want their own brand to be the one that’s known as green.” 

This widespread reluctance is understandable. Research shows that most consumers don’t distinguish between products that have gone through an actual certification and those where the manufacturer decided to slap a few trees on the packaging and call it earth-friendly.

Initially, the Sustainability Consortium’s efforts could create more confusion before they do any good. The group’s first initiative, a standard for green electronics, will eclipse much of the work of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT, which has been successful among government and industrial buyers, is now making progress in the consumer marketplace. Currently, Buy.com, Best Buy for Business and TechDepot identify EPEAT-qualified products on their Web portals, with more retailers to come.

So, in some areas, the Sustainability Consortium may be trying to reinvent the wheel, says EPEAT Executive Director Jeff Omelchuck. “Lots of people have worked to develop these standards. If they wanted to they could use EPEAT for free, so it makes some of us wonder why they don’t.”

Golden says the Sustainability Consortium’s electronics standard will incorporate EPEAT, but will go beyond it to include things like the labor conditions under which computers are manufactured.

The good news: There’s an unprecedented awareness that the eco-label problem needs to be fixed. The Keystone Center, a nonprofit headquartered in Keystone, Colo., has convened a roundtable of manufacturers, trade associations, environmental groups and certifiers to look at how the cacophony of labels can be harmonized. And the David and Lucile Packard Foundation is underwriting an extensive study that will assess how much green standards like the Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade are impacting both consumer buying patterns and producer practices. 

The not-so-good news: It’s going to take several years before we reach a productive conclusion. “It’s a long haul, but I’m confident it will get sorted out,” says Big Room’s O’Rourke.

Until then, shoppers like Denise Culver will have to proceed through the fog with caution. Let’s hope a standard emerges before green fatigue sets in.

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MELANIE WARNER is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer who covers food, the environment and green business. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company and Business 2.0, among other print and Web publications.

Game-Changing Green

When it comes to washing dishes, scrubbing the tub or doing laundry, environmentally-conscious consumers can take their pick of “green” cleaning products. But buying that non-toxic soap or free-and-clear fabric softener doesn’t always mean we’ve made the best choice for planet Earth.

From simple solutions like vinegar and baking soda to self-cleaning countertop coatings, the eco-friendly alternatives are much broader than some product marketers might want us to believe. And this concept extends well beyond the grocery aisle.

Through her “What is a Greener Choice?” study, the University of Minnesota’s Jenny Edwards aims to identify and evaluate green choices that aren’t restricted to the usual either/or decisions, such as paper or plastic, organic or conventional, hybrid or gas, and chicken or beef.

“There’s a lot of lively technical debate over the relative differences between Product A and Product B, but in the grand scheme of things, it may not matter so much,” she says.

A fellow of the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise (NISE), Edwards is among a team of researchers trying to move beyond marginal greening efforts to more meaningful, systemic change.

This past December, thought leaders from some of the world’s most progressive organizations, including 3M, General Mills, Proctor and Gamble, Medtronic, the United Nations Foundation and many others, gathered with NISE fellows and staff for the inaugural NorthStar Consortium meeting. The participants discussed potential approaches to shared business challenges in waste and pollution, freshwater access, climate, and sustainable production-consumption systems.

The results of this meeting, combined with ongoing dialogue over the next two years, are informing NISE’s stakeholder-driven research agenda. The objective is to link interdisciplinary scholarship with implementing sustainable solutions in business and industry.

“This is not just another committee on corporate responsibility,” explains NISE Director Tim Smith. Instead, it’s a grand experiment in environmental problem-solving, with the goal of creating new knowledge that changes the game entirely.

Working together with consortium members, NISE will sponsor up to eight projects. In addition to Edward’s research in “sustainable demand-side drivers,” the NISE team will also investigate ways to share material and capital assets across organizations, as well as the role of private enterprise in increasing global energy and water access.

Smith says these challenges are too large for any one country, organization or individual to tackle, hence the collaborative strategy.

“It’s become clear that the new century’s problems require new kinds of thinking and integrated solutions,” he told attendees at the NorthStar kick-off meeting. “If the private sector doesn’t find ways to engage in meaningful solutions, it may lose its place at the table when it comes time to solve these problems.”